In comparison with film festival veterans, I'm a newbie: I've attended all or part of about two dozen over the past five years. I've yet to make it to Cannes, Toronto or Sundance, but I've gone to regional fests, Asian fests, homegrown fests run entirely by volunteers and big city fests sponsored by large corporations. With all these fests, I've come to expect different things: red carpet premieres and well-known stars at the bigger ones, great enthusiasm and excitement for the films at the smaller ones. Fantastic Fest in Austin, which concluded its third edition this past Thursday, walks another line entirely.
Our own Scott Weinberg described it as "the slickest, screwiest, most user-friendly genre festival this side of the continent." (We'll get to Scott and the unexpected pleasures of the game show he hosted later in this article.) Allow me to explain further: the festival is held at the Alamo Drafthouse (South Lamar location), a multiplex where, yes, you can order food and drinks from your seat, but, more important, all the auditoriums are superb screening facilities. Any projection glitches are fixed quickly and the sound is cranked up as loud as it should be.
Three of the six auditoriums were set aside for the festival, and clearly marked lines were set up in the lobby so you knew where to stand while waiting for your next movie. The staff and volunteers are friendly, well trained, knowledgeable and willing to share opinions on movies if they can spare a moment. It's a huge advantage to have all the festival screenings at one location, especially an exceptionally well-run facility with plenty of free parking. This gives Fantastic Fest a tremendous leg up on other well-meaning though poorly-organized festivals I've attended.
Fantastic Fest describes itself as a festival of the "best new Sci-Fi, Horror, Fantasy and genre films, as well as choice classic and obscure cult titles from all over the world. Fantastic Fest was created to offer exposure to genre films which are often overlooked by the traditional festival circuit." In the minds of many, though, this is "Harry's Festival," an off-shoot of Ain't It Cool News, programmed entirely by Harry Knowles and attended only by slathering fan boys and girls who are only willing to watch "geek fare." Ain't It Cool News is a sponsor of the festival and helps publicize it to its huge readership; Knowles is also one of the programmers and is no doubt involved in helping to bring certain higher-profile titles to the festival.
But the real driving force behind the programming is festival director Tim League. He personally took responsibility (or blame) for programming titles like Postal, Five Across the Eyes and Offscreen, films that were far from universally loved but which he felt should be seen. League also readily credits fellow programmers that include Big Smash and Cinemuerte Film Festival founder Kier-La Janisse, SXSW Producer Matt Dentler, Twitch's Todd Brown, and Alamo Drafthouse cohorts Lars Nilsen and Zack Carlson. The programming was noticeably broader this year, with a very strong selection of films from Asia and Latin America. It's been a very long time since I laughed as hard as I did during Maiko Haaan!!! (from Japan) and Aachi and Ssipak (from South Korea), or been as impressed by a first feature as I was by the world premiere of Nacho Vigalando's excellent Timecrimes, which ended up winning multiple awards and speaks to the diversity of the programming.
That leads me to my last point: it's the unexpected that's always the most pleasant to encounter at a festival. I had heard about Vigalando's short films but didn't expect his debut to be so assured, intelligent and moving. I knew that Moebius Redux: A Life in Pictures had won an audience award at Comic-Con, but didn't expect the documentary to be so accessible to a non-comic book geek like myself. I didn't expect the Russian swords and swordplay fantasy Wolfhound to be so crazily engaging.
I certainly didn't expect the horror trivia game show, Fantastic Feud, to be so entertaining. Hosted by Cinematical's Scott Weinberg, the idea sounded less than exciting to a non-horror trivia buff like me. (Sorry, Scott.) I was engrossed in conversation in the lobby and didn't even realize the game had started, so I missed the introductions, but I arrived to a full house in one of the theater auditoriums. On stage sat two eight-member teams (as pictured above), each made up of writers, filmmakers, industry folks, and Alamo Drafthouse staff members. Alamo staffer Devin aided and abetted Scott and kept score. The rules were confusing, changed at a moment's notice, and were rather pointless. I can't even remember the questions, but they provoked a lot of good-natured, strongly-expressed debate, and, as more alcohol was imbibed and inhibitions loosened, the show got funnier. Our own Scott handled himself well, demonstrating his quick wit as he somehow managed to maintain control of the increasingly rowdy show. Fantastic Feud finally ended at nearly one in the morning, with much of the crowd reassembling a little later for seemingly endless rounds of karaoke featuring many things I cannot repeat for a family-friendly web site such as Cinematical.
My favorite memories of Fantastic Fest this year, beyond a generally wonderful collection of films, remain the people I met, from filmmakers to programmers to writers to fellow film lovers, everyone freely mingling together in a relaxed environment. I only had time and money for one working vacation this year and I'm very glad it was Fantastic Fest.